Constance was a dress maker who came from inconspicuous beginning’s in Norfolk. She ended up making a comfortable income for her family by creating dresses for the opera’s and theatre’s in London.
Constance was born 21st June 1868 as Constance Kitteringham in Marham in Norfolk. She lived with her mother’s grandparents, Thomas and Sarah Kitteringham, in Marham, Norfolk for a while during her childhood. Once Constance’s mother, Ann Kitteringham married the steward William Gunn, Constance took her mother’s married name, making her Constance Gunn.
By 1881, Constance had moved to London and was living on Magdala Road, Islington with her parents and two younger siblings, William H Gunn who was born in 1878 and Annie B Gunn, born 1880, and had left the peace and quiet of Norfolk behind for good. She became a dress maker, and by 1891 the family was living in Denbigh Street, St George Hanover Square.
The date of her marriage is unknown, but by 1901 Constance had married John Baker who had served in the Royal Navy, and held several jobs in London including being a tobacconist, Bus Conductor and Theatre Attendant. It is thought that John Baker’s contacts with various theatre staff ensured Constance a steady stream of orders for dresses and even trousers for use by the operatic stars of the day. Family stories recall John’s conversations with Dame Nellie Melba, an Australian soprano who was widely known and loved before her death in 1931.
The couple had many children, with the eldest, John Gilbert Baker (1893) serving in World War One, resulting in him being killed in action 23rd September 1917 at Paschendale. His name can be found on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Section 115-119. Their other children were Beatrice Edith Howe or ‘Beety’ (1895), Dorothy Constance, ‘Dody’ or ‘Dot’ (1896), Morris William (1898), Mary Elizabeth (1900), Gladys Florence or ‘Glad’ (1902), Aderline (Adeline) Alice Emma or ‘Ad’ (1905), and Annie Clare (1907). It is unknown whether all of these children survived into adulthood.
John and Constance used their wealth to aid others, with John being a collector for the Omnibusmen’s Superannuation Fund, which was founded by Morris Abraham in 1897 to provide financial support for retired or sick bus workers. Fundraising included variety theatre performances, for which a programme for a 1900 is extant. It is supposed that these performances, and therefore the fund, were supported by actors and actresses.
After John Gilbert’s death, Constance and John received the Memorial Plaque or ‘Death Penny’. In their distress, they threw it out and opened up their home in Fulham to help troops returning from France and Flanders, and it is due to this that Constance earned the title of “Mother of the wounded” on her gravestone. Constance with her theatrical contacts, was also able to arrange entertainments in the parks of Fulham for the soldiers. Most of the wealth the family had accrued was spent on goods and food for the troops.
Constance worked hard making the dresses with each of her daughters helping her where they could, with one being charged with making the button holes for example. The family tells of Constance taking the dresses in a bed sheet across London to the top of Hatton Garden so that they could use the cheapest machine to insert glass stones and pearls into the dresses. Since they were made on the cheap, it is thought that the clothes didn’t have any maker’s labels on them. Constance Baker’s dress making crossed the reign of three monarchs: Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V.
Constance and John spent the rest of their lives in Fulham, London, with Constance dying 28th August 1929, and John dying 2nd October 1930. They were buried in Fulham.
Marham parish council plan to install a commemorative plaque to Constance Baker ‘Mother of the Wounded’.
With thanks to Timothy Warner, the grandson of Adeline Alice Emma Baker, for drawing our attention to Constance and providing family stories about her and the family. Article written by K Watson